2018-03-15 15:44:05
Thomas Cole, American Moralist

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new show, “Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings” is gorgeous, politically right for right now, and a lesson in the mutability of art history.

In the 1960s, pioneering scholarship in American art confirmed that Cole (1801-1848) was the nation’s first major landscape artist and progenitor of what would be called (though not by him) the Hudson River School. The fact that he was born in England and spent formative time in Europe was noted, without being particularly noticed. The focus was on his identity as a Yankee romantic, the poetic advocate and spiritual protector of a New World Eden beset by industrial encroachments, with forests being mowed down for gain and railroads slicing the land.

When the 1990s brought an emphasis on art being viewed as unspiritual, unpoetical, socioeconomic evidence, the perspective on Cole changed. Considered within the framework of the Andrew Jackson presidency, which coincided with the high point of Cole’s career in the 1830s, the artist and his work were cast as reactionary, evidence of resistance to the era’s push toward democratic populism, urbanism and Westward expansion. Cole was seen as aligning himself with the attitudes and interests of his wealthy patrons. His Eden was a gated rural estate from which the common man was shut out.

Through a 2018 lens, the perspective becomes still more complicated. Today, populism is being strategically used as a divisive political force. Environmental regulations are being stripped away. In a time of walls and deportations, Cole’s immigrant status — he became a naturalized United States citizen only after living here for 17 years — takes on new weight. Aspects of his conservatism begin to make sense.

It’s Cole the immigrant and internationalist that the show highlights. He was born in 1801 in northwestern England, where the industrial revolution was grinding away. He grew up in landscapes blackened by pollution from William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills.” Cole witnessed episodes of class violence, when textiles workers, left jobless by mechanization, attacked factories and were, in turn, brutally punished by a new commercial elite.

Cole’s father, a luckless small-time businessman, moved his family from place to place. In the process, Cole picked up an education, and learned engraving as a print shop apprentice, initially designing patterns for calico fabrics, later making prints of well-known paintings. The big move came in 1818, when the family sailed to the United States, settling at first in Philadelphia. The teenage Cole stayed in that city as his family wandered westward. From this point, his largely self-taught career as an artist began.

As always true, he had little patience with cities and headed out of them when he could. Wherever he went — including, briefly, to the Caribbean — he sketched what he saw. The earliest piece by him in the show dates to 1823. It’s an ink drawing of a single tree, but no ordinary tree: although naturalistically detailed, it looks bizarrely animated, like some half-human creature in torment, thrashing its armlike branches and yanking its roots from the earth. It’s the product of a distinctive and unplacid sensibility.

Hanging out at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he familiarized with new American and European work. Within a few years, he felt ready to head to New York City, where he assiduously networked the still small art world, sold some things and made lasting contacts.

And on an 1825 jaunt up the Hudson River, he fixed on the subject that he would make his own, the landscape; and more than that, a particular brand, the American landscape, which he approached the same way he did his treatment of trees: as a mirror of reality and an object of fantasy. Market-wise, the approach worked. Early landscapes, like “View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning in the Hudson)” (1827), were a hit. A self-made New York gentry snapped them up.

Encouraged, Cole resolved to head for Europe, a move that would not only enhance his pedigree, but let him see firsthand art he had known mostly in reproduction. In terms of sales, London, the first stop, was a bust. Basically, no one noticed him. But he noticed a lot. He saw an England racked by economic tumult, with old social hierarchies seriously shaken. And he saw artists responding to that.

On a visit to the studio of Joseph Mallord William Turner, he encountered the painter’s great “Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps,” which melds landscape and history painting in a scene from the ancient past that held lessons for the present. At the Royal Academy of Art, he found John Constable’s ”Hadleigh Castle, The Mouth of the Thames — Morning After a Stormy Night,” a soot-gray rural vista that reads like a groan of despair at England’s urbanization. Both pictures are in the Met show.

From England he went on to Italy, and a cheerier stay, though one with grave lessons of its own. Outside Rome he saw, and painted, countryside bathed in the hazy sunset light that he knew and loved in Claude Lorrain’s 17th-century landscapes. But what does that dreamy light fall on in Cole’s scenes? Not on pastoral bliss but on ruins, the crumbling remains of a civilization dead from internal decay.

In foregrounding and illustrating this phase of Cole’s career the exhibition finds its signal purpose. Seeing grand paintings Cole savored in London — by Constable, Turner and Lorrain (“Seaport With the Embarkation of Saint Ursula,” from 1641) — alongside his own pictures of ruins we understand a crucial lesson he was learning: that art was, or could be, a vehicle for critical commentary, political and ethical. And we get an instructive preview of how this will play out in work to come.

When Cole returned to America in 1832 he found it disorienting and spirit-crushing. A striver who had worked hard to leave his rough beginnings behind through identification with a cultural elite, Cole found Jacksonian America: competitive, commercial and uncivil, a land of uncontrolled and destructive appetites. He was committed to the place — he became a citizen in 1834 — but left New York City for an upstate home, in Catskill, where he stayed, with his growing family.

What most disturbed him, and seemed symptomatic of a larger malaise, was the government-fueled drive toward land-grabbing and wilderness-taming at any cost. Virtually from his Catskill front porch he could see forests being rapidly and randomly leveled. For Cole, who identified personally, emotionally, with every living element in a landscape, such sights were an assault.

Increasingly, he used painting to argue against these developments, to resist them. And art he had seen abroad — Constable, Turner, archaeological remains — gave him a new language and conceptual perspective to work with. He put both to use in the 1934-36 salon production called “The Course of Empire,” which, in five separate paintings, narrates the life-cycle of an unnamed civilization: from forest origins, to rural innocence, to prideful florescence, to destruction, to vanishing.

For all its moral seriousness and formal ingenuity, “Course of Empire” never really rises above being a didactic machine. (And the otherwise splendid Met installation does it no favors by crowding it into a corner.) Dramatizing a similar message far more effectively is the single large 1836 painting titled “View From Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow).” From a God’s-eye height we look down at the spot where the Connecticut River, flowing around an island-like land mass, creates a question-mark shape known as the “Oxbow.”

The painting divides vertically into two atmospheric halves. To the left is a wild storm-soaked tangle of old trees and dense vegetation; to the right, far below, a flat terrain of treeless, square-cut fields running back to distant hills scarred by clear-cutting. The wilderness looks unkept and threatening, but seethes with life. The flat land, though cultivated and presumably fertile, feels as bare and bland as a tract-house town. And in the foreground of the picture is a tiny self-portrait of Cole at his easel. He turns away from his canvas and looks right at us, as if to say: Here are the alternatives; you choose.

Cole chose wilderness, and in doing so disappeared himself for more than a century. When he died suddenly, at 47, in 1848, he was widely mourned; pictorial tributes from fellow artists piled up, the most famous being Asher Brown Durand’s 1849 “Kindred Spirits,” which shows Cole and the nature-poet William Cullen Bryant sharing thoughts in a paradisal Catskill Mountain glen. (The picture is back in town for the first time since it was sold by the New York Public Library to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas in 2005.)

Yet within a few years, Cole was all but forgotten. And the colonizing of Nature he so hated — hyped as Manifest Destiny — was being cheered on by artists who claimed to revere him, Durand among them.

Politically, Cole’s art is conservative, but it’s also work that challenges and complicates that term. And the Met show — organized by Elizabeth Kornhauser, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Met, and Tim Barringer, professor of art history at Yale University, with Chris Riopelle, a curator at the National Gallery, London — is precisely about complication. And just as Cole is most realistically and revealingly seen and judged against the background of his time, so is the exhibition, coming as it does in this confounding MAGA moment.